The Knox Bible is one of the crown jewels of English Catholicism, a translation that does justice to the Latin Vulgate while avoiding the clumsy nature of its vernacular predecessors. While you can never judge a book by its cover, sometimes how a book looks is a good indicator of what’s inside. Simply put, this is how a Bible is supposed to look, feel, and be. The leather binding shows a high degree of care and communicates that this is a book which is meant to last countless uses. The Bible is supposed to invite the reader to engage with it after a hard day at work. In fact, Bible’s should be inviting particularly because it is in our hardest times that we need them most.
Similarly, the beautiful ribbon, single-columned text, and golden edges enhance a sense of worth and usefulness to the book. This is a book I wouldn’t mind passing on to my children as a family heirloom.
As wonderful as the book and text are, it’s difficult to appreciate the depth and beauty of the Ronald Knox translation without reading his editorial “On Englishing the Bible,” which is included in pamphlet form to those who purchase the book. The editorial, which runs just under 100 pages, peels back the curtain to give a behind the scenes look at what goes into translating the words we so often read and take for granted. It also reveals a certain frank sadness, or incredulity, at what the author finds to be a persistent disinterest in the Bible in mainstream Catholic culture.
Knox’s methodology for translating the Vulgate into English is sensible because it preserves the original meaning and beauty of the Vulgate without compromising the essence of what is being said by being too literal. For example, when the Vulgate could be translated into English in two different, but equally plausible, ways, Knox would go to the Greek original to get a clearer picture. Although Knox uses less conjunctions than the Douay-Rheims (“Not this man, but Barabbas” becomes “Not this man; Barabbas”) to make the language sound less antiquated for the 20th century, he preserves those parts of the Bible which have become culturally sacrosanct, such as the Lord’s Prayer.
Knox’s pamphlet really makes me think. Every time I read a passage or chapter I find myself putting it back down to consider a thought of his that had never occurred to me before. He describes the Englishing of the Bible at one point as a response to the “chill blasts of rationalism” which “threatened to stunt the development of spirituality.” Understanding the English Bible as a reaction to rationalism seemed strange to me at first given that so many rationalists, such as Thomas Jefferson, have picked it as their ill-forged weapon of choice against Christianity. Of course, Knox follows this surprising statement with the view that “if a religious minority [is] to survive, it must have a culture of its own, a literature of its own,” a concept he credits John Wesley of first realizing. I have spent a few scotches thinking this quote over.
One of the things I did not fully appreciate about Knox is his sense of humor, and I promised that I would share this highlighted section with our readers.
If you translate, say the Summa of St. Thomas, you expect to be cross-examined by people who understand philosophy and by people who understand Latin; no one else. If you translate the Bible, you are liable to be cross-examined by anybody, because everybody thinks he already knows what the Bible means.
It’s always comforting to know that Knox took his work seriously but kept it largely in perspective.
Besides the first edition G.K. Chesterton, the Knox Bible and Knox’s editorial are easily the most interesting books on our shelf. No Catholic Gentleman’s collection is complete without it. Just be sure to have a good scotch handy when you crack the cover for the first time. . .